feature. You watch it with Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) on the brain. I recently listened to a 2015 episode of the wordily-titled podcast Denzel Washington is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period on which Lee was interviewed and he revealed that that was exactly what he wanted. (There are even two Dog Day-specific Easter eggs surreptitiously planted in the movie.)
On the face of it, the setup of Inside Man is simple. Five bank robbers (Clive Owen, Kim Director, James Ransone, and Carlos Andrés Gómez) clad in painter’s clothes hold bank employees and customers hostage one very long afternoon until they get what they want. A detective, Keith Frazer (Washington), accompanied by partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has to figure out how to de-escalate the situation.
The set-up's simplicity is out of stride with the complications of most everything else. The head honcho of the heisters, Dalton Russell (Owen), is very tricky. The film opens with him, speaking directly to the camera, telling us cockily that he has planned and executed the perfect bank robbery. (Notice the doubled past-tensing.) “As for the why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it's exceedingly simple — because I can,” Russell says of his incentive. Frazer wants to get involved in de-escalation because his reputation’s been sullied recently, and figures he can improve his professional standing if he does this tough job well. He can't say no to this opportunity. The owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), calls up power broker Madeleine White (a standout Jodie Foster) mid-robbery imploring her to somehow strike a deal with Dalton to protect a safe-deposit box within the bank. Why?
Inside Man is a very fun heist movie, though not necessarily because its narrative is so electric or because it contains long passages à la heist-movie masterpiece Le Cercle Rouge (1970) that make the act of robbing especially thrilling. It’s more so that it’s exciting to watch this array of strong personalities playing off each other for a couple of hours. It’s not that important to understand everyone’s motivations with crystal-clearness; I’ll fess up and say that the supposedly explanatory final few moments don’t explain, at least very legibly, that much. But it doesn’t matter: This is a movie we like to live inside. Everyone here is so obsessed with getting what they want; everyone is so smooth and witty. Especially White — nothing rattles this professional shapeshifter with the silver tongue. The screenplay by first-timer Russell Gewirtz practically buzzes. Everyone speaks with the quick-footed dynamism of a particularly clever film-noir anti-hero.
Inside Man isn’t all skillful escapism, though. It has a lot on its mind, noting the callousness with which the NYPD treats the hostages — particularly hostages of color. No one will give one of them, a Sikh clerk, his turban back when it’s ripped off by a supposedly valorous cop. There’s an unease in the air let off by white officers on the force when these two Black detectives are put in charge of negotiations. The movie isn’t as outrightly anti-police as one might like, but the emphasis on general unnecessary roughness and exhalations of casual racism doesn’t have a romanticizing effect, either. It’s not black-and-white-straightforward who the heroes and villains are supposed to be, although Inside Man isn’t so morally ambiguous that we can’t enjoy the movie the same way we would a more ethically cut-and-dried crime thriller.
Most cut and dried about Inside Man is that it’s pretty delightful to get a Washington/Lee team-up more steeped in levity than previous collaborations. You can sense them having a good time here; it's surprising that they haven’t worked together since the movie’s release. (Although I’m sure they will once more, even if the most recent duetting gap has been the longest of them all.) Something I appreciate about their long-standing partnership is that we cannot be precisely sure which direction they’re going to go next. It makes you eager for the future. Washington makes for such a great muse because you know that wherever Lee is going to move next, he’ll have no problem adapting. I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. No Spike Lee joint is too daunting for an actor of his caliber.
Malcolm X: A
He Got Game: B+
Inside Man: A-
ew York City-set Inside Man (2006) sees Lee and Washington working in a new mode — one in which you’d like to see them operate more often. It’s a big-budgeted genre movie — more specifically a heist
enough-to-be-professional basketball player who, when we first meet him, is in prison, in the middle of serving a 15-year-long sentence. (Because the film treats his crime and its accompanying circumstances as a sort of major revelation mid-movie, I won’t divulge it here.) In the years since he’s been away, Jake's son, now-18-year-old Jesus (real-life basketballer Ray Allen), has become a young talent to watch — so much so that he gets his own documentary special on ESPN.
The movie begins toward the end of the school year. Jesus’ days of late consist of a lot of people asking him where he’s going to go to college. Who’ll you be playing for? But he’s wary of unwittingly making a bad decision. Since Jake went to prison, Jesus has become a de-facto father to his younger sister, Mary (Zelda Harris). He wants to make sure that whichever route he chooses to go with, it’s also a good one for his sibling. General pressure and uncertainty don’t help matters. What if someplace sounds great, he gets there, and it turns out to be a bust? The possibility of making the wrong choice — with so many people literally framing the signing of his letter of intent as “the most important decision of your life” on top of it — makes him anxious.
The anxiety will naturally be exacerbated in He Got Game. At the start of the movie, Jake is called into the prison warden’s (Ned Beatty) office and is made an offer. If Jake is released for a week, and can convince Jesus to sign with Big State (the alumnus of the governor), then the governor will grant him an early release. Jake, figuring this is a chance to both get out of prison and reconnect with his kids, takes it. The question remains, throughout the film, not as much where Jesus will decide to go but whether his splintered relationship with Jake can be mended. When Jesus sees his father again for the first time, he won’t so much as look him in the eye.
He Got Game is an engaging movie. Its emotional resonance starts building almost on the spot; it doesn’t waver, really. Washington and Allen do startling work. Washington, ever the reliable chameleon, is effective as an oft-volatile anti-hero. And Allen is believably plaintive as the kid who has had to grow up too fast and is now saddled with this decision that has far more dimension for him than it might another high-school senior. He's a teenager who has never quite known what it means to be carefree. But the movie is also too long — too long because it’s distracted. When Lee is tending to the main storyline, we’re rapt. But he needlessly incorporates a subplot involving a young sex worker named Dakota (Milla Jovovich) who’s staying at the same budget hotel as Jake. Jake forms a connection with her; it doesn’t go anywhere that interesting. It’s meant to, I think, abet the idea that Jake is working to become a better man — he’s the only guy who's ever treated Dakota multi-dimensionally, it's suggested. Even then, when you watch scenes with her you're not as emotionally arrested as you are elsewhere. So when they bubble up, you wait for the movie to get back on track. This criticism isn’t meant to additionally denigrate Jovovich: Surprisingly, given she could be erased from the movie and it’d probably be a better, more focused one, it’s one of her finer performances.
Dakota is an insubstantially written character — here mostly in service to how she helps a man on his journey. Which is how all the primary women characters in the movie are positioned. We discover that Jesus’ girlfriend, Lala (Rosario Dawson), has been paid off by a sports agent, and so she mostly functions in the feature as a femme fatale — a lizard in a woman's skin. She’s not fully realized. And Jesus’ late mother, played by Lonette McKee in flashback, is not allowed to be much more than a glowy angel figure — we don’t know her aside from her place in the hero’s psychological voyage. She’s most humanized upon her death. Lee doesn’t seem very interested in understanding his women outside of how they affect others.
Flimsy as it can be, the writing doesn't undermine the thrills of Lee's bolder artistic choices, which mostly pay off. Long polarizing about the film has been Lee’s decision to fairly incessantly incorporate sweeping score work from Aaron Copeland, which is juxtaposed with a series of tracks by Public Enemy. The consensus is that the latter music suits the movie well but that the nearly ubiquitous stuff from Copeland is too overbearing — omnipresent and a smidge distracting. But I think the contrast is inspired. Copeland’s music provides a grandeur, the bigness of opera, to what is for the most part an everyday story. It has a Shakespearean lift. The Public Enemy creations are harmonious with the film’s characteristically strong sense of atmosphere (and lyrically complementary to Lee’s own writing).
Generous use of low-to-the-ground camera angles visually bring to life the way Jake is paradoxically free but also still feeling claustrophobic on account of all the limitations put on him. There’s a slow-motion, technically adventurous shot that ends the feature; it recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey”s (1968) bone-throw. Lee’s the kind of filmmaker where, even if his product’s dinged in a few places, you admire the unwillingness to fall back into what’s comfortable. He Got Game works more than it doesn’t; you wonder what it might have been without its defects, with some more editing. It falls just short of greatness.
n Lee and Washington’s next collaboration, He Got Game (1998), greatness is as elusive for some as it is within reach for others. In the Long Island-set film, Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, a one-time good-
your life hit theaters, you’re compelling in part because of how your story changed over the years. When you’re dramatizing the whole of a person’s life, there’s a good chance that in trying to cover such a large span in a few hours, the resulting product feels hurried. And, almost inevitably, that of most interest is the narrative, not figuring out the crux of the person you're so pointedly putting on a pedestal.
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a three-and-a-half-hour-long epic from 1992, is an anomaly of the genre. It goes the "dramatize the whole life" route — certainly a risk. It uses the wide-ranging The Autobiography of Malcolm X, from 1965, as its source. Yet never does it feel hasty in its attempts to cover so much ground. It doesn’t try to be a definitive text either, per se — instead a bid to further understand but not necessarily “know” its eponymous figure, who remains transfixing and polarizing. Denzel Washington, among Lee’s cadre of muses, stars in the film as Malcolm. This is shrewd casting. Physically, Washington doesn’t much resemble the man he’s playing. But he can seamlessly convey his authority, overpowering charisma. Like Malcolm, Washington has the sort of presence that gets us to really believe in what he's saying even if there comes up a talking point with which we aren't sure we entirely agree. Both can put us in kind of trance.
Most stones are turned in Malcolm X; because Malcolm reinvented himself so often, it sometimes feels as if Washington is playing multiple men. Akin to the sagatic storytelling methods employed in the crime dramas of Martin Scorsese, Lee sagely balances which parts of his subject’s life should be extensively dramatized and which should be invoked through a backward-looking voiceover, a fleeting flashback. The movie traverses Malcolm's moonless childhood, his young-adult years as a small-time criminal, the years he spent in jail because of his small-time criminality, his conversion to Islam while still in prison, his eventually coming to be the most public-facing member of the Nation of Islam after strongly connecting with its central values, his disenchantment with and then departure from the group, and then, finally, his 1965 assassination (by Nation of Islam members with suggested help from the FBI) and its aftereffects. The movie teems. But it doesn’t feel overstuffed. By having three and a half hours to let its narrative breathe, Malcolm X is the rarefied epic that can also be called immersive and intimate.
But it refreshingly doesn’t have an all-knowing ethos. Malcolm X enriches and illustrates without taking it upon itself to be totally exhaustive. In prioritizing Malcolm’s personhood and how prone it was to metamorphosing, the movie becomes an exemplary example of a biopic that keeps its subject on Earth. The steady self-re-examining is part of what makes Malcolm such a compelling figure — his willingness to learn, rethink his ideologies, and move forward, all while maintaining his core beliefs. Because so many biographical dramas tend to gravitate toward either hagiography and/or fabrications to make things juicier for the screen, subjects frequently don’t necessarily become more humanized. Mythology’s sustained.
Malcolm X reinforces the mortality (despite its notable tragic end) of its subject. Until he died, Malcolm was continuously changing, working to better himself. He could admit when he was wrong. This is portrayed in the movie with a kind of compassion that might make some viewers turn inward. When the film ends, there’s a sense that there was so much more to accomplish. Now the legacy of what Malcolm had achieved in his lifetime, and speculation about what might have been, can cloud the personhood behind the public-facing titan — a common occurrence. Malcolm X knows the power a leader can have while also acknowledging the danger of venerating one person as a quasi-god figure. Even Malcolm himself — particularly when it came to his disillusionment with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed (played in the movie by the legendary Al Freeman, Jr.) — thought twice about deification.
Expansive as it is, Lee made the movie partially as a stepping stone — an introduction to, an interpretation of this man rather than an end all be all offering. “This [film] is just the tip of the iceberg,” Washington told Rolling Stone in 1992, just before the movie was released. “My desire is that this film will make people want to read more, study more, understand more about themselves, through Malcolm maybe — he’s the jump-off point. He’s the wake-up call.” The movie does just that — it invigorates, captures so much of what made Malcolm X so great. But by scrutinizing that greatness and dramatizing, warts and all, the person who achieved the greatness, the film becomes richer — the precious biopic that prompts some introspection because it so acutely engages with its subject’s evolution, what it brought out in him.
Denzel Washington in 1992's Malcolm X.
simulacrum of their essence. Or you could go the more ambitious route and try to turn the entirety of your subject’s life into dramatic kindling — ultimately make something really big and all-embracing. But potential pitfalls in either outcome seem to outweigh the probabilities of success — successes usually being related to acting, that is if casting pays off. When you're only dramatizing a sliver of a person's life, there's a good chance you fail to capture their core persuasively. Few people, after all, are “defined” or well-represented by a short period in their lifetime if you’re looking beyond just their professional triumphs. What’s exciting about the human experience is that we can evolve. When you’re famous enough to have a movie based on
t’s a tricky art, the biopic. How do you go about making one without fucking up? You could dramatize a portion of your subject’s life, rendering the movie a
On Spike Lee's Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man